As the losses and injuries mount for the COVID-19-stricken Islanders, it’s fair to wonder whether their bid for a fourth straight playoff berth, never mind a Stanley Cup after back-to-back trips to the NHL semifinals, is over by Thanksgiving.
Wednesday night’s 4-1 defeat to the Rangers before a sellout crowd of 17,255 in their first visit to UBS Arena marked the seventh straight for the last-place, makeshift Islanders (5-9-2), all by at least three goals. They are now 15 points behind the Rangers for the Metropolitan Division’s third and final guaranteed playoff spot.
"We know our situation," coach Barry Trotz said. "It’s nothing about patience. We’ve got to find a way to win a hockey game with a less-than-ideal situation. No one is going to feel sorry for us and I sure hope we’re not feeling sorry for ourselves. I don’t see that, so I’m not worried. You can see it in the effort."
Semyon Varlamov made 17 saves while Igor Shesterkin stopped 20 shots for the Rangers (12-4-3).
The Islanders played much of the game even but did hurt themselves.
They were 0-for-6 on the power play. Mathew Barzal’s hooking penalty on Kevin Rooney six seconds into the second period led to Chris Kreider’s power-play goal to make it 1-0 just 23 seconds later. And the Rangers regained a two-goal lead on Kevin Rooney’s tally just 20 seconds after Andy Andreoff brought the Islanders within 2-1 at 3:52 of the third period as he deflected Otto Koivula’s shot.
"No," Casey Cizikas said when asked if there was frustration the Islanders were being asked to play through an extensive COVID-19 outbreak. "We’re here to play hockey. That’s our goal. That’s our objective. We’re just getting ready for each game. We’re taking it day by day right now."
The latest version of the Islanders’ lineup cobbled together by Trotz included Koivula making his season’s debut as the third-line center after being recalled from AHL Bridgeport earlier in the day with Brock Nelson (lower body) out two-to-four weeks. Koivula skated in between Oliver Wahlstrom and Andreoff, who scored his first NHL goal since Feb. 19, 2018 to snap the Islanders’ shutout streak at 122:03.
Also, recalled defensemen Paul LaDue and Thomas Hickey were inserted for the first time with Noah Dobson (lower body) now listed as day to day.
That meant Scott Mayfield was the lone defenseman to dress who was among the Islanders’ top six before the COVID-19 outbreak, not to mention a lower-body injury to Ryan Pulock that will leave him sidelined for four-to-six weeks.
"I don’t think it’s easy but that’s what we have to do right now," Mayfield said. "It takes more communication. I think some of the system stuff, we all had in training camp together. We’ve just got to dig deep. You can only control certain things: Your work ethic. Your attitude. Stuff like that. That’s what we’ve got to focus on."
Seven players remain in COVID-19 protocol for the Islanders: Captain Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Kieffer Bellows, Ross Johnston and defensemen Adam Pelech, Andy Greene and Zdeno Chara.
Rooney’s goal to make it 2-0 at 14:28 of the second period prompted a loud, "Let’s Go Rangers" chant from the divided crowd. From the Islanders’ fans there were derogatory jeers for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for allowing the game to be played.
It came less than a week after Bettman was uncharacteristically cheered at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for UBS Arena where the Islanders, after starting the season with a franchise-record, 13-game road trip, are 0-3.
They’re scheduled to conclude this four-game homestand on Friday against the Penguins. Stay tuned to see if they actually play.